For the uninitiated, in hip-hop there is a troubling but not uncommon practice called the listening event. Journalists, associates, record label employees, hangers-on, and others gather in a hall or a studio, and mingle while an artist’s new album is played. It is often difficult to hear, making reviews near impossible, and ultimately an effective tool for promotion. It’s more like a poorly-catered mixer for muckety-mucks given a chance to speak ill of this project or that. I have attended somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 of these events in my life. They are terrible. But of course, Jay-Z doesn’t do terrible.
So in honor of Watch the Throne, he and Kanye West’s first shared-billing collaborative album, Jay did what he always does, which is turn a formality into intimacy and dispense with the trappings. In a cramped room on the second floor of the Mercer Hotel, a dozen or so reporters and editors, along with Jay’s publicist, manager, trainer (!), and assistant, and two album pre-order contest winners—imagine Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, only it looks like this—huddled up. Jay was decked in standard casual gear: crisp black denim, a white tee, white Stan Smiths, and a suddenly au courant Yankees snapback—the event actually kicked off an hour late because the guest of honor was at Yankee Stadium hoping to catch Derek Jeter’s 3,000. (Alas, The Captain sits at 2,998, foiling a perfect night.) Without much fanfare, Jay-Z pressed play on the black MacBook in his lap and the album began. Some highlights:
-“No Church,” the first track of 11 played, one of the few referred to by name, and Jay’s favorite at the moment, is a dramatic, dynamic treatise on sin and hypocrisy. Jay explicitly reflects on Socrates question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Deep! Odd Future affiliate Frank Ocean sings the massive, gospel-tinged, Christian-baiting chorus.
-“Lift Off.” The second song played; Jay said he has misgivings about releasing a single for the album, but since they likely will, this would be it. Also, his wife Beyoncé appears on the (literally) space shuttle-launching chorus. So that’s nice.
-“That Shit Crack,” a tentative title for this trash-talking anthem that finds Kanye rhyming, “Prince William ain’t doin’ right if you ask me / ‘cause I’d marry (Mary) Kate and Ashley.”
-“Otis,” one of the most purely soulful songs the two have ever made together, features a pounding sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” up front. A clear standout and the first one I wanted to hear again.
-During the hilarious, audacious “Italian Living,” which features a sample of “Ave Maria,” of all things, a journalist was booted from the hotel room for breaking the evening’s one rule: No live-tweeting. Idiot. One memorable #hashtag rap couplet from Kanye on the same song: “I’m about to say something crazy / John Galliano.”
We could go on. There’s a devastating song rapped to Kanye and Jay’s unborn sons and another called “Black on Black” about intra-racial violence. There’s a thwacking dubstep sample and another appearance by the tapped-for-greatness Frank Ocean. When the cycle concluded, Jay opened the floor to a conversation, as he has during recent events of this kind, asking only that reporters put down their notepads and close their iPhones (Some of us didn’t). What ensued was a kind of half-professional, half-freewheeling chat. The journalists that knew Jay better were freer in their discourse, while the novices asked earnest, interview-y questions. Jay-Z, who has a lot of experience being the calmest, cleverest person in the room, had fun jabbing at everyone—at one point I interrupted one of his responses before he’d finished and he playfully chided me, letting off his trademark cackle-chuckle. These are the times when you don’t mind being mocked.
During the conversation, Jay addressed his and many fans’ disappointment with the first single, “H.A.M.,” which was not played and may not make the final cut. He mentioned that this iteration of the album was the third, after two scrapped rounds of songwriting and recording, blaming ambition and expectation for the false starts. He also said that the sessions were often bizarre and star-packed, at one point recalling one night that featured the celebrated Givenchy designer Riccardo Tischi (who also crafted Watch The Throne’s gold-embossed cover), British women’s wear star (and Kanye obsession) Phoebe Philo, and Russell Crowe. Sounds like a fun room.
The recording of this album also inspired a new Jay-Z solo album, for which he has already completed two songs and is honing four more concepts—one of the contest winners actually nabbed the night’s biggest scoop, which is that Ocean will also appear on the first single from that forthcoming album. Jay also said that Kanye begged him not to release “Run This Town,” the first single from 2009’s smash The Blueprint 3, because it didn’t go over well at a Heavy Hitters barbeque. He lost that battle, obviously. Near the conversation’s end, Jay gently criticized President Obama when asked about his performance: “Numbers don’t lie. Unemployment is pretty high. It’s fucked up, but he’s trying not to be the angry black man.”
Throughout, he maintained his typical prom-king-with-a-sense-of-humor veneer. Few artists are as at ease in this sort of environment as Jay-Z. Whether Watch the Throne lives up to whatever impossible expectations hang over it—and in some ways, it does—it would be tough to walk out of this scene feeling better about Shawn Corey Carter. He’s a crafty one, that guy.